There was a time, not so long ago, when we thought we knew burgers. Available on every pub menu in Britain, not to mention all of the familiar international chains on every high street, they were as familiar to the average Briton as fish and chips or bacon sandwiches, a staple of the late-night kebab shop and Saturday afternoon back garden BBQ. Bun, minced beef, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, done. What's the big deal? What's the drama?
It took a wobbly streetfood van in the corner of a car park in Peckham in the summer of 2009 to wake us from our collective delusion. Britain had not, it turned out, actually known burgers. At all. Oh sure, we thought we had - we'd known things that looked like burgers, that had the vague form and texture of burgers, that were labelled as "burgers" on menus. But no, we hadn't ever known real burgers because here Yianni of the Meatwagon finally was to show us how it should be done, and how utterly misguided we were as a nation in thinking those sad, grey little piles of watery mince hiding inside floury bread rolls were anything approaching the real deal. No, the Meatwagon made real burgers, and a nation's eating habits were transformed.
The problem with the state of burgers in the UK pre-Meatwagon was that people thought they were already in their final form and never really put much of an effort into discovering they were wrong. And much can be said about the state of the country's Buffalo wings. Properly done, Buffalo chicken wings - named after the city of Buffalo in upstate New York and nothing to do with bison - are the ultimate American drinking food, the combination of spicy habanero sauce (usually Frank's) cut with butter, crisp fried wings and fresh chunky blue cheese dip hitting all of the sour/sweet/hot/soft/crunch pleasure points. But order them from the majority of pubs and bars in the UK and you will be presented with chicken that has been any combination of smoked, grilled or baked, covered in anything from BBQ sauce to sweet chilli. And as for a decent blue cheese dip? Well, good luck with that. A trip to the Peckham "WingJam" last week confirmed the sad state of wing affairs in the capital - out of eight or so stalls, only one - from Brother Bird - were any good at all.
There are precious few wing specialists in London - and therefore the UK - offering anything approaching an acceptable product. My previous favourite was Orange Buffalo, who make probably the best blue cheese dip around, but their "Buffalo" sauce, nice though it is, is made using mango and is therefore non-standard. I'm a strong believer that you have to get the basic recipe correct first before experimenting with variations, and was happy to discover Wingmans (stupid name I know - should there be an apostrophe there? Why not Wing men?), newly installed on Kilburn High Road, seem to be playing things fairly straight. Frank's buffalo sauce, celery, blue cheese dip. Hopes were high.
First the good news, and it is very good news. The chicken wings themselves are basically perfect. Large, healthy looking things with a delicate fried crust, the flesh was moist and firm, and the sauce just exactly the right balance of tangy habanero heat and dairy. Unfortunately (and it's a very big unfortunately) they'd seen fit to offer them with quite the worst "blue cheese" dip I'd come across outside of Domino's pizza, a horrid thin and artificial pile of gloop with no discernible texture and very little taste other than a faint note of chemical grease. The fact the same kitchen could make chicken wings so good and saw no issue in serving them with this travesty of a blue cheese dip is genuinely baffling. What were they thinking?
A couple of days before my trip up to Kilburn I'd found myself in the Temple Brew House, a friendly little spot near the office with an astonishing selection of draught beers. More out of hope than expectation I ordered their "Buffalo wings" and wasn't entirely surprised to discover they were disgusting - soggy, formless little things so overcooked they'd dissolved into mush, in an insipid "Buffalo" sauce that tasted more like Heinz tomato soup than anything involving Frank's Hot Sauce. However, bizarrely, the blue cheese dip they came with was wonderful - fresh and vibrant with huge chunks of blue cheese, it was everything a blue cheese sauce should be. Someone should get these guys together; with the Temple Brew house dip and the Wingmans chicken, they'd have an unbeatable combo. It would be like when Yianni met Scott Collins.
Wingmans (I hate saying that word) also do the usual Asian-influenced variations. Shanghai Oriental was decent, with the same good chicken and addictive crunch of the Buffalo paired with ginger, spring onion and coriander. I've certainly had far worse. And "Jamaican Me Crazy" wings were certainly the advertised "HOT!" although I'd quite liked to have seen scotch bonnet chillis being used instead of red for extra Carribbean authenticity.
Truffle parmesan fries were good, although leaving the skins on always smacks slightly of laziness. And a bowl of "spicy Korean gochujang and sesame cucumbers" was underpowered, tasting of little more than rubbery cucumber. So yes, the sides need a bit of work.
I don't know how to come to any easy conclusions about a restaurant that can get one half of a dish perfectly right, and another half incredibly wrong. I really want to give 10/10 for the chicken and 1/10 for the blue cheese dip, but that way madness lies so instead I'll just go for a score that vaguely reflects my overall satisfaction with the place; namely, not very satisfied but not completely disappointed either. Plus there's every chance that one day soon Wingmans may realise their blue cheese dip is a disaster and will have another shot at it. Until then, the search for the perfect product goes on. Is anyone out there ready to be the Meatwagon of Buffalo wings? 6/10
It's possible, I think, to appreciate the fact that Alan Yau is an extraordinarily successful and talented restaurateur, whilst at the same time not being one hundred percent delighted with the reality of eating in his restaurants. Clearly Wagamama is a long way removed from the concept he originally drew up and is easy to criticise in its current high-streets-and-airport-terminals format, ditto Busaba Eathai, but even the food at flagship Hakkasan left me a bit cold, and I didn't get on with Duck & Rice at all; £12 for Singapore fried noodles? No thanks.
But what all his sites unarguably do have going for them is style. Hakkasan is drop-dead gorgeous. The stained-glass windows and marble fireplaces in Duck & Rice take your breath away. And though it's often hard for restaurant nerds like me to admit it, a million-dollar interior and sparkling service are quite often more than enough in of themselves to create a special sense of occasion and give punters a good time, even if what appears on the table is more ordinary. Everyone has different priorities, and I can't begrudge anyone favouring a bit of razzmatazz and nice expensive handwash in the toilets over groundbreaking cuisine, I'd just be surprised if any of them read this blog.
So in accepting an invitation to Park Chinois I though I knew more or less exactly how the evening would go. Firstly, I knew that the interiors would be impressive, and indeed they were - every inch of the place glitters with opulence, from the intricately-patterned banquettes to the jewel-box bar of crystal and gold. I was also expecting service to be smart and attentive, and that came true too - though we had some issues with their taste in food (more on that later), each member of staff was sharp as a button the whole evening. But I also assumed that the food would end up playing second fiddle to everything else going on, and on that score I'm happy to report I was completely wrong.
Because the food at Park Chinois is, as far as we could tell from our limited sampling of the vast menu, exciting and unusual, unashamedly high-end Chinese food at unashamedly high-end prices, but all presented immaculately and, with very few exceptions, complex and rewarding to eat. The evening meal began, as is encouraged at Park Chinois somewhat counter to how Chinese dining usually works, with "dim sum". All the usual suspects - har gau, siu mai, one green one and one with truffle - and all very good examples of their kind, arriving with a lovely fruity chilli sauce and smoky chilli oil.
Next, steamed egg, a dish I'm reliably informed is pretty difficult to pull off successfully. My friend, who I was eating with that night and who's written a book on the subject (Chinese food, not steamed egg dishes specifically) said this was a very good version, and I'm not about to argue with her. Sprinkled on top were miniature dried 'Sakura shrimp', which added a nice rich seafoody note.
Chicken with Thai basil used clever (and presumably quite difficult, given I've not come across this dish before) cooking techniques on good quality chicken, to great effect. With a delicate, crisp skin and a flesh that seemed almost exaggeratedly packed with flavour - perhaps it had been poached in stock at some point, who knows - it was one of the most enjoyable ways with poulty I'd encountered in a long time.
We'd allowed our waiter to steer us towards the next course, a kind of prawn curry with okra, and I'm afraid this ended up being our least favourite dish of the evening. There was nothing exactly wrong with it, and in fact the prawn itself was very nice, plump and full of flavour, but there wasn't enough of interest in the sauce and, well, okra is okra no matter how much you dress it up. I can't complain too much though - the staff at Park Chinois have a difficult job, guiding a diverse London clientele through this overwhelmingly large and complex menu, and I can't blame them for occasionally playing it safe.
And all was forgiven once we'd mopped up the last of the next dish, a gloriously messy and powerfully-flavoured thing that paired salty, buttery king crab with an umami-rich black pepper sauce. This is, in essence, what high-end Chinese dining is all about - premium ingredients, treated well, and presented with an unpretentious yet appealing flair.
There's nobody can cook vegetables like the Chinese, and these peas and lotus roots, dressed in a thick, salty dressing, were interesting enough to stand on their own as a main course - indeed the menu has a section called "Tofu and Vegetables" not anything as dismissive as "sides".
On a menu such as Park Chinois', which boasts something called "Large Supreme Fish Maw 5 Head" for an eye-popping £1,100, and goes out of its way to point out that a £110 sea cucumber dish is indeed "for one person", a £35 "carbonara" involving sea urchin and guanciale and made not from spaghetti but from udon noodles seems almost like a reasonable proposition. So of course we had to order it, and, well, it's every bit as odd as it sounds, poached egg and funky sea urchin flesh combining with slimy noodles to produce a kind of fishy "garbage plate", topped with edible flowers because why the hell not I suppose. We ate it. We probably wouldn't go out of our way to do so again.
But part of the fun of eating at Park Chinois is the mad anything-goes approach of the menu and I really wouldn't want to change anything about the way they go about things (not least this apple cheesecake fashioned into the shape of an apple). It's a complete one-off, this place, unlike anything else in London and most probably also the world. Yes, it's crazy expensive but then they're serving crazy expensive ingredients and if you wanted to have a taste of the place without going full 2nd-mortgage-abalone-and-caviar then they do 3 courses at lunchtime for £30. I mean you can have lunch here for £30, that is undoubtedly a fact.
Of course, most Park Chinois guests will not be leaving with a bill of less than £50, or even £100, or even many times that. It's a very special, special occasion restaurant aimed at people that have the means to order caviar and fine wines with a straight face, and a much smaller group of people who will save up for a rare evening of utter decadence and excess. If this sounds like the kind of thing you'd enjoy, then Park Chinois will surely not disappoint; this is most likely the best version of this kind of restaurant - whatever the hell kind of restaurant Park Chinois is - that London has to offer. So go on, treat yourself.
I was invited to Park Chinois and didn't see a bill. I shudder to think how much the above would have cost. Maybe £300 total?
Cornerstone is a Modern British restaurant on the ground floor of one of those utterly charmless new blocks that have sprung up in the East End on the sites of what used to be junk yards or derelict warehouses. This is hardly their fault - these days a London restaurateur must take whatever's available - but it does mean that whoever's doing the interior design has a bit more of an uphill struggle in investing a bit of soul and personality into a dining space. It's not that Cornerstone is ugly, as such (he says diplomatically), it just feels unfinished; the concrete floors aren't quite polished (or even) enough to feel deliberate, and though black curtains cover up the worst of the bare plasterwork on the walls, one whole end of the restaurant is raw MDF painted black.
Usually the amount of effort a place has made on its interiors is of supreme unimportance - one of my favourite restaurants in town is Silk Road, which is like eating in a hospital waiting room - but when my attention starts to wander to my wobbly table, or the fraying raffia on my chair, it's usually a sign that there's not enough happening elsewhere to make up for it. Take the Cornerstone menu, for example. Bream, smoked salmon, cabbage, cod, lamb... I'm acutely aware I sound like a right spoiled, whinging so-and-so pointing this out, but this is Hackney - I'm certainly not the only one - and this is not a particularly inspiring list of main ingredients. I read it a few times before eventually realising there wasn't anything on it I really wanted to eat.
But anyway, we were hardly about to get up and leave, so hoping the £45 'chef's choice' selection would at least be a reliable highlight of what they had to offer, went for that. And in fact, the "Pickled oyster" wasn't half bad, maintaining a nice balance of seafood brine and vegetation, with little chunks of celery providing some nice texture contrasts. Yes, there are better dressed oyster dishes in town - take a bow, St Leonard's - but this was perfectly decent.
Better was bream, apparently marinated overnight in almond milk a bit like a proto-ceviche, topped with tangy blobs of lime pickle and coconut yoghurt. I liked how the fish was presented in clean, defined fillets like sashimi, and the vaguely South American thrust - it was fresh and lively and enjoyable.
Sadly, the bream was to be the highlight of the meal. From here on, nothing much else set the pulse racing or was even particularly memorable. Smoked salmon - sorry, "secret smokehouse salmon" though don't ask me what was secret about it - was fine in the way that good smoked salmon generally is, and I enjoyed the little lumps of vegetable jelly. But even the best smoked salmon will only ever be, well, smoked salmon, and this would never be a good enough reason to travel to Hackney for dinner. The rye crackers were bordering on inedibly hard, too.
Hispi cabbage seemed quite soggy and bland, suffering badly in comparison to the version with 'XO crumb' served at St. Leonard's last week, and in fact also to the version at the wonderful Hispi bistro in Manchester. The smoked cod's roe was good, but I was a bit unsure as to how to combine this with the cabbage, as the roe just slipped off the wet leaves. In the end, I ate each separately.
Lamb "Kiev" was absolutely no more interesting than the kind of thing you'd get in your local pub (they'd probably call it something like a "pulled lamb shoulder croquette"), and though the filling was perfectly fine in a clumsy kind of way, the pickled anchovies were way too sharp to sit well with the lamb (good salted would have been much more preferable), and the pea purée was cold, unseasoned and pretty unpleasant. There's nothing wrong in theory in reinventing the tried-and-tested lamb, anchovy, pea and mint for a hipster crowd, you'll just need to do it a lot better than this to get away with it.
If a competently-cooked bit of cod was the only thing to appear on the next dish, I would have had very few complaints. Never the most trendy of fish, when it's allowed to appear unadorned and unapologetic, seasoned gently and with the flesh sliding into clean, white flakes, it's nevertheless impossible not to enjoy. Unfortuantely next to it sat a vast pile of sour, bland tartare sauce - sorry, "Café de Paris hollandaise" - which was bizarrely misjudged and completely unnecessary.
Cider Braised Cuttlefish was, there's no other word for it, boring. Tasteless chunks of seafood in an insipid sauce, wading through it was a chore, and the "lentil, apple and spring onion" dressing served to do nothing other than add a cloying sweetness to the stew. With no umami-rich seafood flavour, in fact not much flavour of any kind, it was all a bit of a waste of time, really.
Chocolate cake was a chocolate cake, the kind of thing your local pub would do for about £4.50. Look I'm sorry if I'm sounding increasingly grumpy but I can go anywhere in town - anywhere in the country for chocolate cake with cherry and hazelnuts. It's just not good enough for a restaurant charging £80/head with a couple of admittedly very nice wines. Think of what else you can get in East London alone for this amount of money - dinner at Pidgin, or the Marksman, or Brawn, where the menus are gloriously inventive and feature unusual game and shellfish and offal.
So no, I'm afraid I can't really recommend Cornerstone. I've already pointed out a few much better ways of spending your dinner money, but it's probably unfair to assume that every new restaurant in town to leap right into the very top tier alongside places like the above. What I think it is reasonable to expect is a little bit of innovation and risk-taking, a menu you want to devour and explore rather than glumly tolerate, and at least one dish that I'll remember five minutes after jumping on the Overground home. There's every chance that one day Cornerstone could offer all of these things. Until then, I'm staying away. 6/10
Since the arrival of Padella, the bijou and blindingly popular pasta bar in Borough Market, the race has been on amongst the London restaurant community to emulate its success - or hell, even some of its success - elsewhere in the capital. Results so far, it has to be said, have been mixed. Stevie Parle's Pastaio looked like it might be onto something but could only manage a very weak facsimile of the rightly famous Padella cacio e pepe, and the shared tables are a trial. More recently I bounded enthusiastically into the gleaming new Lina Stores pasta bar on Greek Street, only to be served completely unseasoned tortellini with horrid hard edges.
So why haven't proto-Padellas spread out across London, when clearly the demand is there? Well, I'm guessing because making great pasta - and running a great pasta restaurant - isn't anywhere near as easy as Padella makes it look. It's a difficult, laborious job rolling out fresh pasta every morning before service, and all sorts of factors - not least the space to operate in - need to be just right. And any Italian will tell you there's far, far more skill, time and effort goes into the construction of a truly excellent tomato sauce than your average punter would appreciate. Padella is no accident, it's the result of years of experience (the team behind Trullo in Islington, also excellent) and bloody hard work.
Given, then, that we're probably not going to be exactly spoiled for choice for great pasta any time soon, all the more reason to shout from the rooftops about anywhere offering a genuinely world-class product. So with that in mind, please let me introduce you to Fat Tony's at Bar Termini Centrale, and the best pasta I've ever eaten in London.
It sounds a bit unfair to the scale of what the Bar Termini team have achieved with Fat Tony's to say that quite how brilliant it is came out of the blue. Food this good is always, to some degree, unexpected, no matter how much previous experience is being brought along. If I had been told half the staff of the River Café were working downstairs at this rather functional spot on Duke Street that Tuesday evening I still would have been flabbergasted by the quality of the dishes they were turning out, but from chef James French, someone whose name was completely new to me before the press release landed in my inbox, the shock is all the greater.
I hardly need to say, given Bar Termini's pedigree, that the drink offering is amongst the very finest in the capital. Intelligently conceived and immaculately assembled, the Marsala Martini is a thing of stark, clean beauty, balanced and fresh to taste. And the Bellini, similarly stripped-back to its essentials and bathed in a gentle peach glow, is - I believe - spiked with essence of fresh fruit (one of Tony Conigliaro's signature techniques) for extra zing.
But OK, OK, the food. Burrata arrived first. A giant, beautiful thing draped in olive oil and speckled with black pepper, it cut open under gentle pressure to reveal a filling of soft seasoned cream, being in every way about as good as a burrata you could hope to encounter in this city or any other.
Another starter was wonderful in all kinds of different ways, pieces of expertly-prepared octopus complimented by potato, fresh herbs and a kick of nduja. There are a lot of great octopus dishes in London at the moment - the Holborn Dining Room version is particularly noteworthy, and this stood up to the very best of them.
Fat Tony's pici cacio e pepe is about the only version of this dish that has been anywhere near up to the standard of Padella's, and in fact - whisper it - may even be slightly better. The sauce is that same worryingly addictive emulsion of cheese and butter spiked with black pepper, salty and dense with flavour, and speaks of a kitchen that really knows what its doing. But the pici itself was so bouncy and vibrant it was practically alive, jumping around on the end of the fork like a Star Trek special effect. Sorry if that simile doesn't make them sound particularly appetising, but there it is.
Pappardelle with beef shin ragu is another classic dish where extreme attention to detail is the difference between a soggy plate of nonsense and a journey to pasta heaven. With soft yet firm folds of pasta bound with an unbelievably rich and beefy sauce, this was very much in the latter camp, again - at the risk of repeating myself - right up with the very best versions of this dish I've sampled anywhere, and probably a little better still. It's also worth pointing out that the generous chunks of beef that appeared in the bowl were tender, flavoursome little things that almost deserve a blog post all of their own.
Bucatini is (I discovered) similar to pici but with a hole running through the middle. What this means is that as well as being coated on the outside with the most incredible tomato and guanciale sauce, it bursts in the mouth into even more flavour when you bite into them, which if you've not experienced it before let me tell you is A Very Good Thing.
You'll have got the idea by now. Everything Fat Tony's do is (apart weirdly from the house bread, which was a tad stale, but we could have just been unlucky) worth shouting about; yes the pasta is worth crossing continents for but, as I said before, this is no kind of accident. Everything this team has been involved with, even since way back in the days of 69 Colebrook Row, has been touched with a kind of obsessive perfectionism and now they've turned their attention to pasta it makes sense that they've ended up making the best pasta in London, too. Some people are just that annoyingly good at what they do.
Anyway, for now I'll let you go and discover it for yourself. With its obsessively-perfect rendition of classical Italian cuisine, Fat Tony's is a singular achievement for its owners and a new jewel in the crown of London dining. If you sit down for a meal here and manage to come away even in the least bit disappointed, then I'll shut down the blog, sell my house and go and live on an island somewhere. In fact, they've turned me into such an evangelical that despite this meal beginning with a PR invite, I decided to pay my bill in full so that my message wouldn't be diluted. And the message, in short, is this - go and eat at Fat Tony's. It'll change everything. 10/10
Looking back over the God knows how many years I've been writing this blog, it seems that my most breathlessly enthusiastic and hyperbolic reviews have been of places that are about more than just great food. Great food is obviously a given - this is after all why you're here - but it's the stories that often turn a great experience into a special one. I'm thinking of Yianni's journey from flipping the best burgers in Britain to opening the industry-altering #meateasy popup in New Cross, the discovery deep in the rolling Lancashire countryside of two women running the platonic ideal of a food pub, or when some Italian food enthusiasts decided to open a tiny no-reservations pasta bar in Borough and it ended up being exactly what thousands of Londoners had been waiting for. It's these stories, the unusual or surprising circumstances leading up to the creation of fantastic food, that lift the whole experience into something else.
The conception of St. Leonards (that sounds like a Catholic order) has, it must be said, very little of the unusual or shocking. It is the simple story of some extremely talented people who, with one popular and successful restaurant - Brunswick House - already under their belts, decide to open another one. They find a medium-sized site recently vacated by the Spanish restaurant Eyre Bros and open it out into a bright, clean space; they hire a phalanx of charming and dedicated front of house staff dressed in smart monochrome to work the floor; and they kit out a vast kitchen with a centrepiece wood- and charcoal-fired hearth, over which hang various tantalising cuts of beef on the bone and tuna collar. And then, finally, they serve some of the most exciting and innovative food London has ever seen.
OK, so, maybe St. Leonards is special after all. Restaurants like this do not come around very often, and nor do they happen by accident. Jackson Boxer and Andrew Clarke have pooled their considerable experience into a menu of such stark, beguiling beauty that if you took it to an open mic poetry night you could read it top to bottom and receive a standing ovation. Certain phrases attack the senses even if you're not exactly sure what they imply - "soy butter", "buckthorn mollases", "tuna bone caramel", "XO crumb", and the less the menu explains, the greater is the desire to discover them for yourself.
Attention to detail - precise, exquisite attention to detail - is everywhere, even when a dish is literally no more than a product of clever sourcing, such as this Noir de Bigorre ham, sliced to order into soft, salty, nutty folds. Noir de Bigorre ham has apparently been produced in the countryside around Lourdes for longer than the Iberico pigs from Spain, and though nothing is likely to beat a top bit of Belotta to my heart any time soon, this certainly gave it a run for its money.
If you're anything like me you will fiercely resist anyone mucking about too much with oysters, and though I have enjoyed the odd baked bivalve in my time - most recently at the short-lived offshoot of Mien Tay Mrs Le's - usually I want nothing more than a squeeze of lemon. But here are St Leonard's dressed Lindisfarne to completely change everyone's mind on the subject. Wild black pepper infused pickling liquor (I mean try not loving that concept, I dare you) and pickled garlic scapes complimented and elevated the lean oyster flesh to create an extraordinary mouthful of fresh, briney sweetness. I never want oysters any other way again.
Then, a cherrystone clam, its shell shining blue like fine Wedgewood pottery, dressed in a smoky, earthy Sichuan peppercorn oil and topped with daintily chopped spring onions. All St Leonard's strengths were on display in this one bit of seafood - the playful use of Asian spices, the interesting and rarely-seen main ingredient, the beautiful and precise presentation.
Some neat oblongs of mackerel next, their silvery skins glittering beneath dandelion stalks. Underneath, a layer of dense, umami-rich soy dressing - "soy butter" - which I did my best to mop up with the mackerel before finally resorting to using my fingers. I didn't care if anyone was watching.
"Chawanmushi" is apparently a kind of savoury custard, here combined with foie gras for extra levels of meaty decadence. On top sat a few pieces of smoked eel - always impossible not to love - and crunchy pieces of pork skin. So foie gras, smoked eel and pork scratching. Together. Yes, it was brilliant.
Sweet baby onions, charred on the hearth, would have been a decent little snack even of themselves, and actually quite similar to a course at famous Scandi weeds-and-pickles restaurant Noma I had a couple of years back. But here they came on something called "tuna bone caramel", which I can best describe as possibly the greatest fish-based sauce you'll ever taste in your life. God knows how many laborious techniques go into its production, or how many grinding man hours, but the result is a thick, dark sauce somewhere between bagna cauda and treacle, so dangerously addictive it should come with a parental advisory sticker.
There are few things more reliably rewarding than a bit of charcoal-grilled bavette, even when not particularly good quality beef. Of course St Leonard's use the best beef they can get their hands on - from Swaledale of Skipton - and so the result is a tender, powerfully-flavoured dish, overhung with woodsmoke and topped with grated cured bonemarrow for bonus beef.
Maybe I don't need to say anything about the next dish. Maybe all you need is the photo above, for an object as overwhelmingly beautiful as that to do all the talking. Or maybe all you need are the words "monkfish, buckthorn mollases, beach herbs" and you can let your mind fill in the details of the firm, blinding white flesh glazed in sweet syrup, the ethereally light hollandaise underneath, the pile of salty succulents above, plump with freshness and life. As much as any dish at St. Leonard's should be a must-order - and there's some competition for that particular role - I'd wager you'd leave with the greatest regret leaving not having tried this bronzed beauty, an absolute masterclass in fish cooking.
Sorry, perhaps I need a second to compose myself. I should try and offer a bit of balance, some sour lemon to cut through the oozing cheesecake of hyperbole. OK then, here you go - the rhum baba wasn't very good. Dry and woolly, it was certainly soaked with a generous amount of rum but the alcohol could still not prevent the sponge from sticking to the roof of my mouth. So, yeah, St. Leonard's isn't perfect.
But "salt caramel & East India sherry tart with cardamom ice cream" was perfect, displaying a willingness for bold experimentation that had been a feature of the savoury courses. With an expertly-judged smooth, light filling and great soft ice cream, it was everything you'd need in a caramel tart.
I began this post with the desclaimer that St. Leonard's has no intriguing backstory, no rags-to-riches journey from street food to bricks and mortar, no heartwarming reality TV triumph against adversity. For lazy restaurant bloggers and overworked food journalists the lack of a "hook" could mean it doesn't grab the attention - or headlines - as much as other places. It doesn't even have a car lift to accommodate paparazzi-shy celebrities.
But the very fact that St. Leonard's isn't an "accident" or an "experiment", and has no eye-catching gimmicks, could perhaps in the end be the very reason for its success. It exists because certain people want it to exist, and because those same sickeningly talented individuals have nailed, at every turn, everything that makes a restaurant great, while ignoring any irrelevant extra bells and whistles that don't. Make no mistake, there's every bit as much of a revolution going on here as in that strange dark space above a pub in New Cross back in 2011, or at the end of a two-hour queue in Borough, but hiding in plain sight as a "normal" restaurant in Shoreditch means that St. Leonard's stands even more of a chance of knocking you sideways. It certainly did me. And it's only a matter of time before does to you, too.
I visited St. Leonard's at the tail end of soft opening, so received 50% off the bill as you can see above. A more normal price per head would have been about £80.
The Wellington Arms is not, in my opinion, a gastropub. Yes, I know it's number 33 on the Top 50 Gastropubs list, and is a building that looks quite a lot like a pub, and it has a pubby name. But a dealbreaker in the whole pub/not-a-pub definition, as far as I'm concerned, is whether or not you can turn up without a reservation, sit at the bar and have a pint of beer without committing to a full meal, and if you can't do that, that's not a pub, that's a restaurant.
However. Aside from that one crucial disqualifier, on most other measurable indices the Wellington Arms ticks all the boxes. The menu, for one, is absolutely solid gastropub territory, with perennial favourites like steak and fish and chips sitting beside seasonal delicacies like wood pigeon and rabbit terrine. It reminded me very strongly of the Parkers Arms menu, another exquisitely tasteful and accessible piece of menu work, and in fact despite this corner of the Hampshire/Berkshire border being somewhat more moneyed than Bowland (one couple turned up in a Tesla) the prices are just as reasonable, with starters around £8-£9 and mains largely under £20.
Of course it's one thing writing a pretty menu, quite another delivering on it. Fortunately, the kitchens at the Wellington have more than enough of a grasp of British pub aesthetic and French technique to make good on their promises. Potted crab was pretty much perfect, a teacup filled with spiced crab meat (white and brown) and plenty of butter, with a generous amount of the house sourdough to spread it on.
Westcombe cheddar soufflé was an absolute beauty, a cloud of salty, fluffy dairy that dissolved in the mouth like savoury candy floss. But even more impressive than the soufflé itself was a layer of thin discs of courgette underneath, soaked in a delicate cheese sauce, that added just enough salad to prevent all that dairy becoming overwhelming. It was a seriously good soufflé.
The beer batter on these courgette flowers had a good crunch and a pleasing hoppy flavour of its own, and stands as a good indicator that the Wellington Arms fish and chips would have had plenty to recommend it. Here, though, it was holding in a filling of ricotta and mozzarella, and made a very enjoyable vegetarian starter. I've seen more tempura-like, thinner batters on other courgette flower dishes, but I quite liked the continuity of using the same batter as the fish and chips. Because why not?
The problem with serving pies in 2018 you are now automatically pitched against the work of Calum Franklin of Holborn Dining Rooms, and Stosie Madi of the Parkers Arms, who in the last couple of years have redefined how good the humble pie can be, and brought quite dramatically higher expectations down on pies that until recently could have been considered above reproach. It's not that the Wellington Arms venison pot pie is bad, or even not worth the very reasonable £17.75 they're asking for it, it's just you can't imagine the Holborn Dining Rooms or Parkers Arms serving meat just the wrong side of dry, that stuck to the mouth, and in a rather thin, wine-y sauce that needed a bit more beefing up with stock.
Scallops wrapped in pancetta is another familiar gastropub play, and the Wellington are too confident and skillful an operation to serve anything less than a hugely enjoyable version of it. I suppose if you were determined to pick fault you could say that with a dish like this the kitchens are playing it safe somewhat, but then it's almost certainly only tragic saddos like me that could ever be "bored" with scallops wrapped in pancetta, as nobody else had an issue with them.
Perhaps a more reasonable criticism of the place is that despite a large and spectacular kitchen garden, the number of items marked "HG" (Home Grown) on the menu was limited to a few salad leaves and courgettes (plus flowers). Broad beans were apparently not ready yet, which is nobody's fault, but I spotted plenty of plump red strawberries in the garden which featured nowhere on the desserts menu, and things like Jersey Royals and other root vegetables, asparagus, tomatoes and peas were all bought in. Sincere apologies to the Wellington Arms if I'm completely trivialising the difficulties of running a functioning professional kitchen garden, but as one of those hopeless tragic saddos I mentioned earlier my first instinct when given a menu is to pick whatever the restaurant has been able to grow themselves, and on that front it was slim pickings.
But despite this, it was still hard not to be impressed by the sheer hospitality, warmth and professionalism of the Wellington Arms team. Desserts, solid if unspectacular versions of a treacle tart and Eton Mess (the latter using home grown rhubarb at least) would have been much harder to fault had the pacing of the evening and attentiveness of the staff been anything less than perfect the whole evening. And just look at that bill - without the £20 worth of jams and chutneys we took home with us this accomplished and enjoyable meal in charming surroundings came to under £50/head. By anyone's standards, this is a bargain.
So though not in the very top-tier of its ilk, there's still plenty to recommend at the Wellington, and you'd have to be very unlucky indeed to not to come away from a meal here thinking you'd got far more than your money's worth. And it's worth pointing out that the50 Gastropub list that I have been working my way through over the last couple of years, pedantic definition of "gastropub" aside, is yet to really offer up a significant dud. Picking an entry and planning a day or two based around a meal there is a pretty-much-guaranteed way of having a lovely country gastro-break. So, where next? 8/10
Some of the best food in California is to be found in strip malls. This isn't just my opinion, but the opinion of chef Ludo Lefebvre, who in his Mind of a Chef episode was referring to his own locale of Los Angeles but which applies just as well to its southern cousin. Yes, in San Diego there are plenty of decent ways to spend your dinner dollar downtown, the insanely flashy Born and Raised being the latest and greatest of them (and somewhere I would have positively reviewed already were it not for the fact it's pitch black in there after sunset and none of my photos came out). But if it's not a New York-style steakhouse (above), or boisterously over-designed late-night date venue you're after (e.g. Juniper & Ivy, Kettner Exchange, Craft & Commerce), then you'll need to start looking towards suburbs like Convoy or Kearney Mesa, where the real magic happens.
Over the years I've had charming hand-made dumplings from Tasty Noodle House in Convoy, table-sized bowls of fragrant Pho from Convoy Noodle House in Chula Vista (there's also, unsurprisingly, one in Convoy), and blindingly fresh fish tacos from TJ's Oyster bar in Bonita, all right at the very top of their respective games when it comes to the cuisines in which they specialise and all installed in unassuming strip malls where the prices are reasonable, service is friendly, and parking dreadful. These unassuming, ugly even, at least from the outside, slices of functional Americana are where frills and flourishes are (excuse the pun) stripped away, leaving the food to do the talking.
At Tadokoro, then, the food very much is the focus, but once you leave the rather workaday environs of this Old Town strip mall behind you and step inside the restaurant, it's clear just as much energy has been expended on the remarkably authentic Japanese interior and warmth of the service as anything that may end up gutted, fileted and served on a plate. It's a tiny place by San Diego standards, with only about 20 seats at tables and a further 9 at the bar. Needless to say, for the true 'omakase' experience it's critical you sit at the latter, where you can watch the bits and pieces of your dinner being assembled right in front of you, not to mention gawp at those destined for fellow diners as well.
One thing I took home from my trip to Japan back in 2012, along with a suitcase full of crazy flavoured noodles, was the sobering realisation that, despite my previous certitude, I was not the fearless food adventurer I thought I was. A salad bowl topped with cod sperm was the first shock to the system, and raw whole baby squid (giblets in situ) a few days later dealt my culinary confidence the mortal blow. Generalising hugely, whilst Japanese food is often intelligent and beautiful, it's not always very accessible, and their fondness both for fish semen as well as bland savoury jellies and bony freshwater fish fried whole along with their soily guts didn't always sit well on a Western palate. On this one, at least.
I had a flashback to the CSI (Cod Sperm Incident) watching our itamae open the biggest oyster I've ever seen in my life (from British Columbia), heave out the contents onto the counter, and slice it up into five pieces for my starter. It sat in front of me, dressed lightly in ginger and ponzu, looking like a bleached placenta, and for a moment I wondered whether I was up to the task. Fortunately - thank God - it tasted sweet and lean, with no hint of the horrid creaminess that can affect these bivalves in certain seasons. If you ever get a chance to try a giant Pacific oyster from British Columbia, take it, is my advice.
With the oyster came monkfish liver, as dense and rich as paté de foie gras, on top of an addictive layer of pickled mushrooms. And next to that, some pieces of conch mollusc, which to be perfectly honest didn't have much of a taste or a particularly pleasant texture (they were rather tough) but hey, at least I can now say I've eaten conch.
So clearly Tadokoro weren't afraid of pushing the timid Western palate, and good for them because over the next 14 or 15 "courses" (most just bite size) I got to try not only some world-class sushi, but a great deal of fish and shellfish I've never even seen on a menu before never mind actually sampled. Such as this local San Diego Bay spotted prawn, which was presented first as part of a sashimi set (antennae and legs still waggling away) alongside otoro (fatty tuna, as good as ever), a scallop from Japan (fine but not spectacular) and curls of "Bigeye" tuna and amberjack (apparently some relative of the sashimi-staple yellowtail).
At the relatively modest price point (for omakase anyway) of $85, it's perhaps unsurprising that some of the courses used cheaper fish, but I still would have much rather the usual black cod miso (of Nobu fame) than the presumably farmed and rather ordinary Chilean seabass used here. Still, it was nice enough, particularly the pickled ginger stem which was as colourful as it was tasty.
I got to try a bit of this tempura roll, which was my dinner companion's main course (I couldn't persuade her to go full omakase, and after the arrival of the giant oyster she was glad she hadn't) and it was packed full of good stuff, including a lovely fresh crab mixture and some of that gorgeous buttery California avocado.
The head and legs of the spotted prawn from the sashimi course now reappeared having been deep fried (you can also ask for it in soup form). Incredibly, aside from the thick carapace the whole of the rest of the animal was now entirely edible; the head had an incredibly complex, ever-so-slightly bitter concentrated seafood flavour, and the legs were like eating tubular prawn crackers. Hugely enjoyable.
Next began a run of the highlight of any omakase experience (at least I think so), the nigiri. I'll save you the exhaustive detail (and not only because I didn't take notes honestly guv) but amongst those pictured above are halibut cured in kelp, a remarkably spicy tuna relative cured in chili (the red one), a fantastic blowtorched mackerel, a sea urchin from Hokkaido (which wasn't actually as nice as the local San Diego ones but I wasn't about to start an argument) and finally a lovely fatty bit of smoked eel.
Towards the end of the meal, while we polished off our sesame ice creams, a whole, bright-red golden eye snapper appeared from the back and was carefully gutted and fileted in the front kitchen. The skill going into the separation of the light pink flesh from the bone was mesmerising to watch, a lovely bit of food theatre in of itself, but also neatly encapsulated just how much skill and effort goes into the food at Tadokoro. For a bill of around $140/head with a decent gutful of sake, this is almost certainly one of the most accomplished sushi restaurants in the city, and has become my new benchmark for the West Coast "omakase" experience.
In fact, it was so good I not only pledged to go back as soon as possible but it also gave me renewed vigor to venture forth on my next trip to the States and see if anywhere else can top it. I've heard good things from the usually reliable Eater (I would say that, as they occasionally pay me for work) about a little place called Sushi Ota in Pacific Beach, which despite a worrying habit of serving cod's sperm is many people's favourite for this kind of thing. They also operate out of a strip mall. I'll keep you posted. 8/10
At one end of the Restaurant Ambition Scale you have a simple street food stall, where a small team - often just one person - tests the market with a highly specialised menu of variations on a theme; burgers, perhaps, or Korean-French fusion Yorkshire pudding burritos. Success at this level may lead to investment and expansion and - for the lucky ones - a nationwide chain of restaurants, but none of this happens overnight. Word of mouth travels slowly, and success has to be earned the hard way.
At the other end of the scale, there is Hide. Occupying three floors of an imposing tower block in the heart of Mayfair overlooking Green Park, consisting of a basement bar, ground floor bistro and mezzanine fine dining restaurant, there is nothing about the place that isn't lavishly, indecently confident bordering on downright reckless. As most of the London restaurant industry prepares to batten down the hatches and prepare for the long, dark Brexit winter of the soul, Ollie Dabbous and his Russian investors have decided to throw caution (and a few million quid) to the wind and open by what is by some distance the most impressively kitted-out bit of foodie real estate in W1.
Outside, it's fairly discreet - austere, even, with tinted windows only hinting at activity within, and a large unmarked entrance of dark panelled wood. Inside, though, you can see where every last penny of the £millions went; a glorious stylised wooden staircase looking like something from a Guillermo del Toro movie is the obvious centerpiece, but lovely design details lurk in every corner and it's worth factoring in a good ten minutes into your evening schedule just to make time for gawping in slack-jawed wonder at it all before turning your attention to the food.
Mind you, the food served at Hide deserves just as much slack-jawed wonder as the surroundings. The artist's eye and attention to detail that made Dabbous such a roaring success is even more amplified here, and even this cynical, restaurant-weary blogger saw several moments of genuine, game-changing innovation. Even the bread course was pretty much perfect, all of it oven-fresh and beautifully done, particularly a "foccacia" so insanely delicate it practically dissolved in the mouth - pure buttery, flaky joy.
Simmental (there's that name again) beef tartare came wrapped in cute little nasturtium leaves secured with mini clothes pegs, and despite the leaves being slightly wilted and past their best, still made for very satisfying little morsels. I couldn't detect much of the advertised 'tobacco' flavour but perhaps that's for the best.
Cornish mackerel tartare was served with one of those clever Pacojet-made snows, flavoured with eucalyptus. I don't know if you've ever had mackerel and eucalyptus before - I very much doubt it - and I still haven't, as I didn't get to try this one, but I am reliably informed it worked very well. And who can resist a moat of seaweed and dry ice, to lend a creepy B-movie atmosphere to proceedings?
At this point, my camera battery died, so I'm afraid from here on photos will look like they have all the life drained out of them, as the iPhone in low light tends to do. So just imagine how vibrant the colours were in real life on this dish of raw red prawns, and how a cool, clear shellfish consommé brought a refreshing spritz of the ocean.
Chicken liver parfait was actually nowhere near as weird and grey as it looks here; it was in fact a very attractive pink-bronze, smooth and light and perched proudly on the top of a clever bit of custom tableware, as if nestled in the caldera of a sunken volcano.
Under normal circumstances a single "sweetbread" may sound a bit of a stingy portion for a main course, but this thing was huge - not overwhelmingly so, and with a fantastic light texture, but plenty enough to satisfy. It was presented with angular spears of various pickled herbs and vegetables, and over the top was poured one of those dense, meaty sauces that you just want to order a dozen gallons of and bathe in. Actually, maybe that's just me. Sorry for the mental image.
Octopus was right up there with the version served at Holborn Dining Room, which means it was pretty much perfect. Beautifully tender and darkened with charcoal smoke, it was like sitting on a Mediterranean beach next to a wood fire at sunset. Alright, maybe not quite like that, but it was a very good bit of octopus.
Even the more straightforward dishes were never anything less than impressive. Herdwick lamb, presented in three neat sections, was perfectly cooked and boasted a texture firm yet so yielding it could almost be cut with a spoon. It was clearly excellent lamb - the attention to detail, from everything from the very obviously flashy presentations to the more subtle efforts in areas like sourcing - was quite something to behold.
We could hardly leave without seeing what magic Hide could bring to desserts, and "warm acorn cake" turned out to be a kind of rum baba, where smoked caramel was poured over the cake, itself soaked in a generous measure of your choice of rum. Whether by accident or design, our waiter left the rum bottles on the table during dessert, and it's probably only fair to point out we may have snuck a couple of extra measures before the meal was done.
I didn't see the bill - I was lucky enough to be treated to dinner on this occasion, and though this wasn't a PR invite I thought I'd mention it anyway. But it's worth saying that, really, for food of this precision and skill, in such blindingly attractive surroundings, in this part of town and presented by a team so relentlessly lovely and enthusiastic about the food and drinks they serve you feel a bit mean for not inviting them to sit down and enjoy it with you, well, I think the £100/head or thereabouts feels like something even approaching a bargain. Certainly there are far worse, and far more expensive places to eat within easy walking distance (*cough* Novikov *cough*).
So I can wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend Hide. It hits every single restaurant pleasure point with a bullseye, and if you have the means, and enjoy eating lovely food served by lovely people, then it's hard to see why you'd leave the place any less impressed than I did. And I was very impressed indeed. So thank you Ollie Dabbous and team - it's reassuring that in these difficult times, there are some people willing to aim big, and have their lofty ambitions realised so perfectly. 9/10
Despite never having been to White City Place before, the vibe of the place felt eerily familiar. Originally a collection of BBC buildings, the writing was on the wall for them remaining so as soon as the price of a two-bed flat in Zone 2 spiked over £750,000 and so today they've transformed into yet another one of those wipe-clean reimaginings of a public space, still technically public domain but heavily stacked with lots of lovely investor-friendly residential blocks. See also: Battersea Power Station, Stratford Olympic Village, and so on.
Of course, though billions are to be made in residential housing, not even an absentee Saudi landlord would want to own property in a windswept concrete jungle with only a branch of Tesco Express and a Pret for entertainment, so more often than not these developments offer a sweet rent deal for half-decent restaurants, so they can pretend to be a normal functioning neighbourhood at least for as long as it takes to flog the apartments above. So Battersea Power station boasts - for now - a (very nice too) branch of Wright Bros, Stratford Olympic Village has Darkhorse (which hosted a popup by Henry Harris while he was between Racine and Coach, Clerkenwell stints) and now BBC Media Village - sorry, White City Place - has Wellbourne.
Wellbourne is, objectively, a nice restaurant. True, at first glance the menu appears to be rather unfocused, with various French, Italian, Spanish and Middle Eastern elements vying for attention, but anywhere serving Ibérico secreto and veal Holstein clearly have a bit of ambition about them, and with a Josper-style charcoal oven in the kitchen they've at least been able to spend some money on equipment to - in theory - make the most of it.
All of which may even have not been enough to tempt me to W12 were they not able to offer a type of cow I'd not seen on a menu before - 50-day-aged "Simmental" beef from HG Walter, a butcher already in my good books for supplying the astonishingly good burgers served by Harris at the aforementioned Coach in Clerkenwell. So with that, I hopped on the Central Line.
Before the steak though, some vol-au-vents. Every restaurant needs a USP, and it seems the team at Wellbourne (including the most affable Michael Kennedy who was in the kitchens the evening of my visit) have pinned their hopes on the humble vol-au-vent making a comback. And why not, because these were perfectly lovely little things, boasting good buttery casings and intelligent, well-seasoned fillings of lamb shoulder and mustard, salt cod, and (my favourite) broad beans, sheep's cheese and mint.
That I enjoyed my steak as much as I did is testament mainly to the quality of the raw ingredient, as I had various issues with the way it was presented. By all means serve steak on the bone - it's my preferred cut - but if you're going to cut it off said bone before serving, do not then re-grill the steakless bone (!?) to remove all trace of nice pink flesh, and do not drape the filleted beef over the bone on the plate, like it had all been dropped from the ceiling. Added to this, there wasn't enough of a crust or colour on the steak itself, which ended up looking a bit sad and flabby.
But! But. It still tasted great. This was clearly very good beef, and despite all the indignity it had suffered in the cooking process still managed to boast a dense, rich funkiness that only the most carefully-aged cow can. Simmental, interestingly, are mixed-use cattle that can be used for dairy or beef, much like the Galician breeds you find in so many trendy Spanish steakhouses these days (Lurra, Sagardi) and I don't know whether it's just a happy coincidence that this happens to chime with exactly what I'm looking for in a steak, or there's something about ex-dairy cattle that makes incredible beef, but I was more than impressed.
Veal Holstein was also a good example of its sort, carefully and prettily presented, tender veal schnitzel seasoned with good strong anchovies. And at the risk of repeating myself, how nice that a new bistro like this is making the effort to do something a bit unusual rather than filling the menu with burgers and Ceasar salads as I'm sure they could easily have done.
Oh yes, chips were very nice - neat and golden brown with a good crunch - though I preferred dipping them in a red wine jus than something called "bois boudrin" which had all the personality of cold Doritos salsa.
Fortified by good meat, as well as a glass of very good Napa red from their Coravin system, we felt comfortable enough to stay for desserts. "Dolce[sic] de leche" ice cream sandwich was excellent, soft inside without a trace of crystallisation, and with a nice salty crunchy biscuit. So too, lemon leaf sorbet which had loads of citrus punch and a smooth texture. The less said about the attempt to pair the ice cream with a dry manzanilla sherry, though, the better - a sweet port, hastily substituted, soon put things right.
Overall, then, there was enough to enjoy, and though clearly I can't be giving top marks to anywhere serving steak like that (if you like, see how different it looks on the restaurant's own website - wait for the 3rd slide), the quality made up for some of the texture and you can still do a lot worse for the same price elsewhere. Whether it will survive in this strange, lonely spot once the rents go up - we were one of two tables taken all evening - remains to be seen, but it's probably no safer than anywhere else in London at the moment, Saudi investors or no Saudi investors. So better just make the most of it all while we can.
I was invited to Wellbourne and didn't see a bill, though I imagine all of the above would have come to about £50/head or so.
Though I'm sure this part of the world has its charms at any time of the year and whatever the weather, I've been fortunate enough to experience perfect summer sun each time I've had cause to travel to Yorkshire. For the Black Swan our meal was preceded by a stroll through the surrounding valleys, spotting a few of the animals that were to appear on our plates that evening. And in Leeds a couple of years later, though most of the day was spent on a train or in that strange dining room on the top floor of a clothes shop, we did have time for a pint outside Whitelock's before the journey home, soaking up the rays as we debated the merits or otherwise of our lunch.
And so too last weekend, where a long-awaited tasting menu at Yorkshire super-gastropub The Star Inn at Harome happened to coincide with the hottest April day for 70 years, a fact not lost on the hungry group of people (myself included) climbing the huge hill to Wombleton on our way to lunch. But there's nothing like a long walk up a hill in 27C to work up an appetite, and once walking boots had been swapped for high heels (not mine) and a bottle of fizzy rosé opened in the Star's back garden, we were ready to get stuck in.
First of the courses was a baked oyster covered in shaved (though strangely not melted - I think the cheese was grated over the already-baked oyster) Parmesan and a kind of wild garlic pesto. I've never not preferred a raw oyster to a cooked one, but this was still very nice, using good lean oysters and just the right amount of cheese and garlic to season them.
Next, one of my favourite things in the whole world - beef consommé - here poured into a bowl containing fresh horseradish, pickled beetroot and charred miniature onions. The vegetables were well chosen and well cooked, but of course we were mainly here for one thing, and that was a big Bovril-y hit of glossy beef soup, which was everything I needed it to be.
Another cracking dish was this of octopus, tender and touched with a slight char from the coals, in a rich, pitch-black Venere risotto, dotted with cavolo nero from the garden, dill, nasturtium, lovage, chorizo and who knows what else. In fact if I was going to pick fault I'd say we could have done with losing a few ingredients (particulary the raw lovage which tends to beat everything its put up against to oblivion) as there was more than enough to enjoy in the octopus and risotto alone, but I suppose there's no point having a kitchen garden if you don't use it.
Then two foie gras dishes arrived simultaneously, our lovely waiter (more on whom later) happy to swap out a couple of the "signature Star Inn" foie, black pudding and apple for something from the shorter Garden menu which sounded more intriguing. And yes, although the signature "posh full English" (if you like) was immensely enjoyable, not least because the foie dissolved in the mouth like meaty butter and the sugar-coated apple was a perfect foil for it, the simpler yet slightly more experimental pairing of foie with warm spiced pineapple and cool cep ice cream was even more successful, garnering universal praise from our table.
Mains weren't disappointing exactly, just not quite up to the standard of what had come before. Turbot was lacking a bit in flavour (I'm told the older, larger animals taste better so this could have been a young-un), and an "oyster velouté" was subdued to the point of invisibility, although a cute little "wild garlic butter pie" it came with was warm and comforting.
And a slightly mealy venison loin played second fiddle to a braised faggot, plump with tasty offal, which really should have been the star of the show, especially once drenched in a sauce of fermented black garlic. Now I come to think of it, I don't think I've ever had a really good venison dish - it always seems to be a bit of a characterless protein, despite 'game' being my favourite category of food overall - so maybe this was just a personal thing and someone else would have found far more to rave about.
Despite the odd mis-step, though, we were enjoying ourselves, and in an effort to make the lunch stretch as far as possible into the afternoon (and also because we like cheese), availed ourselves of the cheeseboard. Don't ask me to remember everything that arrived (the matching wine measures were extremely generous) but Yorkshire Blue and Stinking Bishop were as good as they usually are, and all served at a perfect temperature.
I'm willing to believe there are people in the world who would not enjoy a Pontefract Cake Soufflé with salted caramel sauce and banana ice cream, but I am certainly not one of those people, and I thought the combination of the sweet banana and faintly bitter liquorice in the soufflé was seriously impressive, an experiment that very much worked. I am told, though I didn't try it myself, that the other dessert, "Whipped Brillat-Saverin with Flavours of Yorkshire Curd Tart" was equally experimental but less successful, although full marks for imagination. (I accidentally took a photo when my camera was on the table, but I quite like the effect so I've left it in)
Moving from our cosy little private dining room (the Star is full of cosy little nooks, as building that have been around for about 700 years generally do) back out to the glorious sun of the garden, the afternoon soon dissolved, as it generally tends to do with this particular bunch of people, into spirit-soaked, alcoholic oblivion. I notice from the itemised bill that one of us was the lucky recipient of a £26 shot of 15yo Glenfarclas while two others had to make do with a £6 Kilchoman Sanaig apiece, and did somewhat less well out of the equally-shared bill. And I have no idea who ordered the Mini Cheddars. Still, the point is, a marvellous time was had by all, thanks in no small part as well to our fantastic Spanish (I think) waiter who was a model of his profession and coped with every one of our increasingly lively requests with charm, knowledge and more than a little patience.
In the grand scheme of things, perhaps The Star Inn isn't quite up there with the very best country restaurants I've been lucky enough to visit over the last few years. You've probably come to the same conclusion yourself by this point. But at £120/head for a full afternoon of fun, seven courses and enough quality booze to knock an elephant out, it's certainly good value and I'd be very surprised indeed if you booked a meal here and didn't have just as much fun as we did, booze or no booze, sun or no sun.
We stayed at Plumpton Court which was great value, very comfortable and did have a well-stocked bar before we arrived. I'm sure they'll have restocked by the time you get there, though.